American Book Review just published a ranked list of the “100 Best First Lines from Novels.” [hat tip: Dr. Olsen] There are a number of interesting choices here, including Calvino’s If on a winter night a traveler, Federman’s Double or Nothing, Dunn’s Geek Love, and even something from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. However, there are also a lot of fairly predictable ones too. The list is topped, respectively, by the opening salvos from Melville’s Moby Dick and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow weighs in at #3. I’m not surprised by how heavily the rest of the list is populated by modernists and ABR’s stable of metafiction superstars (Barth, Coover, Sukenick, Sorrentino, et al).
I am surprised by how many Victorian-era novels appear here, and how few recently-published works there are. Only 8 novels on the list were published in/after 1990: Ha Jin’s Waiting; Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2; Toni Morrison’s Paradise; Iain M. Banks’ The Crow Road; Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex; Anne Tyler’s Back When We Were Grownups; William Gaddis’ A Frolic of His Own; and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage. I’m not sure what (if anything) this says about the 21st century novel, or ABR for that matter, since it’s primarily a review of contemporary literature.
And, yes, I’m deliberately failing to mention that a large chunk of these novels appeared after 1950, which seems to be, more or less, the accepted threshold for “contemporary” work. We are, however, nearly 60 years past Eisenhower’s America now, and even though there’s still a strong and vocal minority out there desperately trying to reinstate the morays, aesthetics and politics of that time, I think it’s fair to say the majority of us have moved on. Come on now, really: is J.D. Salinger our “contemporary”? (More on that in a second.)
Why all the hubbub, bub? Because I’m wondering how many of us interested in contemporary fiction are actually reading contemporary fiction. And I’ll point to myself as a prime example. I don’t read nearly as many new novels as I’d like, and probably far less than I should. This painful, personal revelation makes me wonder if the novels on the ABR list are reflecting something similar, since a lot of the works listed are canonical (this, of course, could just be coincidental). Are these, then, the openings to novels we’re supposed or expected to consider worthy of being called “The Best”-Whatever?
If you compare the novels on the ABR list to, say, the best-of lists assembled by Time or The Modern Library, there are very obvious and necessary differences; no way in hell Federman makes either of those lists. But there are also a number of similarities, too. Maybe too many. IMHO, this is exacerbated by ABR’s list missing mid-century writers like William Burroughs and Henry Miller, and truly gifted contemporaries like Kathy Acker, Jeanette Winterson, Tom Spanbauer, Rikki Ducornet and Ben Marcus, whose novels frequently serve up some awfully memorable first lines. I’m a bit perplexed, too, that neither a volume by Jack Kerouac nor a single Don DeLillo novel appears here (this is probably okay, by the way…), and more than a tad peeved that Salinger made another best-of-something list.
But you know what? All’s well that ends well. Let’s all take heart knowing that John Updike isn’t on this list.